They Say Millennials Lack Empathy, But is it True?

It’s fashionable in some groups and thought circles to refer to Millennials as the “me generation.” The members of this generation are so preoccupied with themselves that they completely lack empathy for anyone else. There are plenty of articles and opinion pieces out there that try to argue that Millennials are increasingly narcissistic and self-centered and trying to explain why that may be the case.

What’s interesting is that the research cited is actually fairly consistent in its conclusions. A pretty famous article in Time cites several sources which show that narcissistic and individualistic traits in Millennials are higher than in previous generations. When studied, Millennials often demonstrate less concern or sympathy for the misfortunes of others.

There’s no debating the research. That is, there’s no debating it if you take it at face value. Particularly, there’s no debating it if you’re someone who doesn’t understand empathy because you lack empathy yourself.

You Need to be Empathetic to Measure Empathy

The research out there is crock because it uses definitions and measures that were created from perspectives which distinctly lack empathy. This is most evident when we examine the use of “sympathy and concern for the misfortunes of others” as a metric for evaluating empathy.

Konrath et. al. measure significantly lower rates of empathic concern and perspective taking in the Millennial generation. The problem is that their definitions of both are more akin to pity and sympathy rather than actual empathy. There is a distinct difference here that needs to be stated.

Pity and sympathy are specifically antithetical to empathy. They are predicated upon a recognition that the object of your feelings is in a different circumstance from yourself. Importantly, they also rely on viewing the object of your sympathy as just that, an object. The person whose misfortune you’re so concerned about is distant from and external to you. So when we find that Millennials disagree more with the statement, “ “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” it is erroneous to claim that this is an accurate measure of their empathy. In fact, a negative response to that statement could be an indication of increased empathy.

Similarly, when Millennials respond negatively to the statement, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” they’re not actually saying they try less to empathize with their friends.

This is true because real empathy does not require conscious cognitive effort.

Let that sink in for a second.

When you really share an emotional state with someone, when you truly understand that emotional state, you do not need to make a conscious cognitive effort to replicate it. You are an insider, not an outsider trying to understand what “the other” is feeling. You are one in the same.

The definitions of empathy used in the research, and their corresponding measures, are distinctly un-empathetic.

What Does This Say About Previous Generations?

One thing to note is that research and commentary on the empathy of Millennials is almost exclusively conducted by non-Millennials. The definitions and measures they use are created by them; they are not novel or reworked. They are borrowed and carried forward from decades old psychological research and literature.

In this way, a meta examination of the research reveals a great deal about the lack of empathy in the generations of the people conducting the research. When your only conceptualizations of empathy rely on pity and sympathy, it’s clear that you yourself don’t really understand what it means to be empathetic. When your only conceivable measure of empathy is showing concern for someone else or trying to put yourself in their shoes, then you don’t actually grasp what it means to be in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is an internal recognition that you both are already wearing the same shoes; you don’t have to try and see how the other shoes fit.

Similarly, studies show that Millennials value extrinsic rewards of work more than intrinsic rewards.

Here, things like income and status are classified as extrinsic rewards. The problem is that, in their unlimited individualism, Millennials increasingly view income and status as intrinsic rewards. They expect to be paid fair compensation and be treated with dignity and respect in their workplace. Unpaid internships are rejected as exploitative now, where previously they were more commonplace. The measures need to be changed and the definitions reworked. They are byproducts of people who have an entirely different, and remarkably un-empathetic, world view.

It’s also telling that the results of the questions, “I like the kind of work you can forget about after the work day is over,” and, “ If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you’d like for the rest of your life, would you want to work?” were excluded entirely from the final conclusions of the study.

Millennials view work as a means to an end, not as a constant that they need to dump their entire lives into. They work because we’ve created a societal structure which necessitates it, not because the work serves any great purpose. You necessarily have to lack empathy with Millennials to structure your research in such a way.

How Can Narcissists Be Empathetic?

There is no doubt that Millennials are generally more concerned with themselves and feel significantly higher amounts of entitlement than previous generations. They want debts forgiven, free healthcare, adequate living wages, and a whole host of other things they feel they deserve.

So how can people like this possibly be empathetic? The answer is in the statement itself.

Millennials share their lived experiences. They intrinsically understand their shared circumstances and recognize their shared consciousness.

If Millennials are increasingly individualistic, they empathize with each other’s individuality. They share that mindset and that experience. Millennials are less communal, but they share in that perspective. They needn’t try to understand how other people feel because they are more emotionally connected with other people through their lived experiences.

How do we know this? Millennial communication relies on a level of empathy that is unprecedented in society.

Just search Instagram for #mood, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Millennials are a generation that can post a picture of them drinking on the porch with nothing but the word “Mood” in the caption, and convey a complex emotional understanding that will be understood by every other Millennial who sees the picture.

Previous generations were largely unable to communicate emotions at such a fundamental level. Instead, they relied on one-dimensional words like relaxed, relieved, or having fun to communicate what they were feeling. Instead, all they were doing was communicating whatever the other person thought the word meant. Millennials are managing to transcend the functionality of language and use it symbolically to communicate the emotions themselves.

Want a more dramatic example? Here’s a meme for you:

Here is an image that uses the logo of a salt container to convey a complete emotional state without ever telling you what that emotional state is. And yet, it is understood completely. I don’t even need to go into how the fact that memes even exist and are used as communication already illustrates my point.

But What About the Research?

When we look at research that tries to understand Millennials through what they do rather than responses to poorly defined measures created by Boomers, we actually see a slightly different story.

In the workplace, Millennials work well in teams and prefer frequent and open communication, particularly with their superiors.

Millennials utilize communication technology far more frequently than previous generations. One of the main reasons they cite for this behavior is that they seek social connectedness, which the researchers define as “receiving appropriate empathy and understanding from peers or society.”

Millennials are even more productive at work when they have work friends and operate in a low stress environment.

All of these behavioral realities suggest that Millennials are actually far more empathetic. They operate on a subconscious platform of empathy which relies on a common emotional foundation with the people they regularly interact with.

It’s important that we rid ourselves of misguided notions of what empathy means. We can’t measure it using un-empathetic methodologies that rely on conscious effort based evaluations.

Instead, let’s take a lesson from Millennials and become more introspective. When you begin to criticize somebody for not being empathetic, consider that maybe you are the one who cannot empathize with their emotional state.

One Last Note

One study interestingly suggested that Boomers are workaholics driven by ambition, and will be critical of people who don’t feel the same way.

I wonder why so much research conducted by Boomers seems to conclude that Millennials are selfish, entitled, and un-empathetic?